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.

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

change up

Just as Lower East Side integration plan takes off, superintendent who helped craft it steps down

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Carry Chan, left, will become acting superintendent in District 1 when Daniella Phillips, right, leaves this month to join the central education department.

The longtime superintendent of the Manhattan community district where parents pushed for a plan to desegregate the local schools is stepping down just as the plan gets underway.

After a decade at the helm of District 1, which includes the Lower East Side and East Village, Superintendent Daniella Phillips is leaving to join the central education department, Chalkbeat has learned. During the yearslong campaign for an integration plan, Phillips acted as a liaison between parents and the education department, which finally approved a new admissions system for the district’s elementary schools this fall.

She will be replaced by Carry Chan, who has also played a role in the district’s diversity efforts as the interim head of a new Family Resource Center, an information hub to help district parents sort through their school options. Chan takes over as acting superintendent on Dec. 18.

The leadership change comes at a crucial time for the district, which also includes a portion of Chinatown. Parents are currently applying to elementary schools, marking the first admissions cycle under the new enrollment system. Under the system, schools give certain students admissions priority based on their economic status and other factors, with the goal of every elementary school enrolling share of disadvantaged students similar to the district average.

It will be up to the new superintendent to help schools recruit and welcome a greater mix of families, and to help steer parents towards a wider range of schools. Advocates hope the district can become a model for the city.

“There is a torch that needs to be carried in order to really, fully execute,” said Naomi Peña, president of the district’s parent council. “The next superintendent has to be a champion for the mission and the cause.”

During heated public meetings, Phillips tried to keep the peace while serving as a go-between for frustrated integration advocates and reluctant education department officials. The tensions sometimes boiled over, with advocates directing their anger at Phillips — though they were eventually won-over and endorsed the final integration plan.

In her new role, she will oversee school consolidations as part of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. In District 1, Phillips helped steer three such mergers, which often involve combining small, low-performing schools with ones that are higher achieving.

“It has been such a joy and privilege to be District 1 superintendent for over 10 years, and I’m excited for this next chapter in the district and my career,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

Chan is a former principal who launched the School for Global Leaders, a middle school that focuses on community service projects and offers Mandarin classes. Last year, she joined the education department’s Manhattan support center, where she helped schools form partnerships in order to learn from one another.

Since October, Chan has served as the interim director of District 1’s Family Resource Center, which is seen as an integral part of making the new diversity plan work. Families must apply for seats in the district’s elementary schools, which do not have attendance zones like other districts. The family center aims to arm families with more information about their options, in the hopes that they will consider schools they may not have previously.

“I think we’re all really passionate about this plan and we really want this to work,” Chan said. “Communication is the key, and being transparent with how we’re progressing with this work.”